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Cancer and discrimination at work

Written by: Fit for Work team | Posted in: Blog


According to figures from Macmillan Cancer Support, there are an estimated 2.5 million people living with cancer in the UK, and this number is projected to rise to 4 million by 2030 (an increase of 3% every year). Whilst cancer survival rates are improving (people now live nearly ten times longer after their cancer diagnosis compared to 40 years ago), Macmillan have estimated that around 25% of people in the UK face poor health or disability after treatment for cancer. This can have profound effects on people at work.

What is ‘discrimination’?

There are four main types of discrimination:

  • Direct discrimination – a person is treated less favourably because of their disability (e.g. deciding not to employ someone because of their health condition, dismissing a person on the ground of their health, or overlooking a person for promotion on the grounds of their illness).
  • Indirect discrimination – an organisation’s policy or procedures makes it more difficult for people who are disabled.
  • Harassment – abusive, humiliating or distressing behaviour towards a person because of their disability.
  • Victimisation – a person is treated badly because of having made a complaint about discrimination.

Workers in England and Wales with cancer are protected from discrimination in the workplace under the Equality Act 2010 (which replaced the Disability Discrimination Act 1995). Under the Act, people with cancer are automatically classed as disabled and are therefore protected from being treated less favourably than other workers. As part of their duty of care towards staff, employers are obliged to take reasonable steps to ensure the wellbeing of workers. This may mean making reasonable adjustments to make it easier for people who are classed as disabled to remain in work. The nature of these adjustments depends on the individual, their condition, and the effect it is having on them, but could include changes to working days or hours, time off for medical appointments, or changes to a person’s job role.

Returning to work after cancer

In general, being in work is good for a person’s self-esteem and sense of purpose, and for many, getting back into a normal routine plays an important part in their recovery.  However, a survey carried out in 2016 by Macmillan Cancer Support/YouGov to investigate experiences of 1,009 employed people living with cancer, found that:

  • 18% of people who return to work after being diagnosed with cancer faced discrimination from employers or colleagues.
  • 15% said they returned to work ‘before they felt ready’.
  • 14% gave up work altogether or were made redundant as a result of their diagnosis even though the vast majority (85%) felt that continuing to work was important to them.

Alongside the reasonable adjustments required under the Equality Act 2010, employers can support their employees in a number of ways:

  • A supportive return to work policy taking into account the effect that a person’s treatment programme might be having on their physical and mental wellbeing.
  • Regular discussions and an ‘open door’ policy so the employees know that they are supported at work.
  • Helping employees to tell the relevant people about their condition by finding out whether they are happy for colleagues to know about their cancer diagnosis, supporting them in their decision and offering to speak to people on their behalf.
  • Raising awareness within the organisation of the implications of a person’s cancer diagnosis – what to expect, and what their limitations might be.

Support from Fit for Work

Support and guidance about work and health can be sought from Fit for Work, which offers free, online work-related health advice and guidance to anyone looking for advice and support about an existing case of sickness absence, or about issues that may result in sickness absence. Visit the Fit for Work website or call the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). There is a separate service running in Scotland (0800 019 2211).

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